Originally published on October 10 2013
Apparently, everything old is new again – especially when it comes to what some philosophers had to teach us from more than 2,000 years ago. I refer particularly to the famous Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius,the Roman playwright Seneca and the Greek philosopher Epictetus – THE STOICS. I am assured that they have been ‘discovered’ during COVID lockdowns by the younger generation with new interpretive books being published. Hooray, I say!
These philosophers are often referred to as THE STOICS. I expect that, except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, they are unknown. I must have been fortunate then to be exposed to them when I did an ‘O’level’ in philosophy when I was 15 (I’d been chucked out of physics and chemistry) – I’ve been inspired and comforted ever since by what I learned. (I was recently re-reading Aurelius’s Meditations – which sparked this current conversations with my 17 and 19 year old granddaughters – they finally thought I was trendy?). Stoicism is largely unknown or misunderstood – part of that is the injustice that is given to the word STOIC – because, to the average person, this dynamic, practical model for living has become misinterpreted as emotionless – and nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the 19 year olds’ birthday tomorrow and I have bought a book for her – THE DAILY STOIC by Ryan Holiday – 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. I highly recommend it for anyone embarking on their journey into Stoic Philosophy.
I recently went to a show in Byron with Ruby Wax – the New York comedian who lives in London. She was talking about her new book ‘Sane New World’ – an account of her experiences of being born into a dysfunctional family, being diagnosed with depression after the birth of her third child, having lived with it for most of her life, and how she learned to deal with it. She said she dealt with it by allowing herself to be diagnosed and then trying to understand it – she has just completed a course at Oxford University where she studied neural plasticity – how the brain works and suggests we can rewire it to help us function in a better way – it’s apparently not all in our DNA .
She prefaced her talk, in the usual way around here, by having a dig at the Byron Bay audience – (apparently we are all hippy-trippy crystal gazers – amongst other things). She then proceeded to talk about how she turned her life around by learning about mindfulness – being in the moment and about how we should: realize that the acquisition of wealth and ‘stuff’ won’t give us peace and contentment, stop and actually listen to our children, not try to do twenty things at once and be aware of the here and now etc. etc. It seemed to me that most of the audience were thinking the same as me “No wonder you’re depressed if you’ve only just worked that out” Why did she think we have chosen to be HERE rather than THERE?
We all have difficult times in our life and there is not always a hand reaching out to stop us stumbling or pick us up when we fall, so we really have to learn ways of helping ourselves – for me that’s engaging with nature, being active (having a swim!) and finding the pleasure in small things, because sometimes I could easily just pull the covers over my head and try to blot out the difficult bits. It’s at times like that I go back to Seneca – the Roman philosopher who lived over 2,000 years ago during the reign of Nero, who ended up forcing Seneca to take his own life when he fell out of favour (and we think our leaders can be self-serving, greedy nincompoops!).
I had done a short course in philosophy at school, but I really got to know more about Seneca from the marvelous series ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’, by modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton. Seneca’s main message is that we are in charge of our own happiness and if the way we are running our life is making us unhappy – then change it. Be brave – it will make you more resilient.
JUST A LITTLE STORY: When I was growing up my mother was constantly on the latest fad diet – grapefruit, Pritikin, Weight Watchers, liquid dinners in a can, pills etc. etc. The garage was also full of discarded ‘diet aids’ – a belted fat wobbler that you strapped around you, turned on and then fell in a heap of laughter (that burnt up a few calories – the fat wobbler did nothing!), special mats and rolling ‘things’ for doing stomach crunches, a medicine ball that nearly knocked her teeth out and the piece de la resistance ‘the scuba suit’ – as my father dubbed it. This was a flesh-coloured, rubber corset with little holes all over it that my brother and I had to help her get zipped into – don’t ask!. This was supposed to make her sweat, while running around the house with the vacuum cleaner, and bingo the pounds would drop off. Of course, she didn’t lose an ounce. The unzipping of this corset of torture was at least fun to watch – she looked like she was in the final stages of some fatal disease; bright pink and sweaty with little pimples all over her where her flesh had been forced through the rubber holes!
Mum thought there there was a magic answer to her displeasure with the way she looked. What she didn’t want to do was CHANGE – eat less and exercise.